Civil unrest as criminal QC appointments escalate

Robin Jackson
Robin Jackson

Of the 104 who were ­successful in their applications last year, 67 worked as civil barristers compared with 26 practising criminal law and nine family silks. This compares with 56 civil barristers, 34 criminal and five family silks in 2008.

The trend has reversed in 2010, however. The increase in criminal barristers has affected the percentage of those practising civil law.

Of the 129 applicants, 51 ­operate as purely criminal barristers – the equivalent of 40 per cent – and 64 in civil law, of which 19 practise ­public law.

According to one chambers’ chief executive: “This is the result of a ­system where if you have the competency you’ll get through, rather than just filling the positions ­available.”

However, one Bristol-based clerk rejects the merit-based system, ­arguing that it is of little use to ­barristers who have taken silk but have empty diaries.

“Court users look poorly on the selection process because there’s no account taken of the requirements they have,” the clerk says. “The regional bar continues to struggle to get access to the commercial chancery QCs and we have too many criminal silks.”

Another Bristol clerk agrees. “We want to bring in more silks and we’re in talks to do so,” he says. “But if you’re junior in Bristol and you want to be a QC, then you won’t be in Bristol for long. London’s the place to be for those people.”

According to Matrix Chambers chief executive Lindsay Scott, however, the regional courts are getting busier, albeit in matters relating to public law.

The appointments ­committee selected 19 ­barristers with public law experience to take silk. Four Matrix barristers were awarded the accolade.

“It’s because there’s more and more ­public law cases going through the courts,” says Scott. “It’s ­getting more and more important and it’s a remedy everyone can use.”

Civil rights set Doughty Street Chambers is ­testament to this. In the past year the set has expanded significantly, with new offices in Bristol and ­Manchester.

The strategic plan is to plug into the regional ­markets to get instructions in the regional Administrative Court.

Doughty Street was awarded five new silks in the competition, three of whom have crime practices. Only three other sets equalled that tally – criminal ­specialists 25 Bedford Row and commercial sets ­Fountain Court and 11KBW.

“Recently it seems not so many criminal barristers have made silk,” commented Doughty Street practice director Robin Jackson. “All of a sudden we have three who are entirely crime.

“We’re ­delighted to be getting more silks. It’ll improve our income substantially and will also improve the ­gearing of our business.

“We’re a publicly funded set. In order to maintain the right level of business we need the right gearing – one silk to every four or five ­juniors is perfectly fitting for us.”

The top 10 civil sets gained 21 new silks in total, with the largest proportion going to Fountain Court, which is now home to 27 silks and 35 juniors.

Applying for QC status is not to everyone’s liking – it is a big financial investment, with the application costing £2,702, and if successful a further fee of £3,500 must be paid.

With the civil bar witnessing a dearth of promotions, many are predicting that applications will shrink ­further next year.